So amidst my pre-election political blatherings, the subject arose of placing restrictions on people’s right to vote.
And I suppose I want to talk about why I don’t think this is a great idea.
Well, that’s a bit sweeping. Not every single restriction on who gets to cast a vote in UK elections is a bad idea. Being a UK citizen is not an unreasonable requirement, for a start (though apparently being in a Commonwealth country or the Republic of Ireland is also fine), and being registered in a constituency likewise.
Obviously people who don’t live here and have nothing to do with the country shouldn’t be getting involved. The other rules, though, are all about excluding people who are resident here. It’s decided that some people should not be granted a say in electing their local representatives.
For instance, there’s an age requirement. Which makes sense. Whether 18 is the right place for it is a discussion I’m not equipped for, but that a cut-off point exists is clearly sensible. Being convicted of “electoral malpractice” also comes with a five-year ban, which has a certain logic to it.
And, according to that BBC article’s report on the “arcane language of the legislation”, there are also voting restrictions on “idiots” and “lunatics”. This covers, among others, “[t]hose compulsorily detained in psychiatric hospitals”.
And here’s where it starts to get a little bit sticky.
The discussion on placing further restrictions on people’s voting rights, and turning it into more of a privilege, often centre around the idea of administering some kind of test, to determine whether someone is sufficiently intelligent or politically savvy for their opinion to safely matter.
The appeal of this isn’t tough to understand. You probably don’t have to think very hard to remember someone you’ve met recently who struck you as the sort who could only endanger society by getting involved in the democratic process. Perhaps they were on the other side of a till. (This works whichever side of it you were on yourself.)
But it’s kinda essential to the “demo” part of “democracy” that the people all get to have their say and get involved, not just some select few who have passed some test of particular merit. If you were to make sure the only people casting votes were the ones doing so for sound political reasons based on a wide-ranging understanding of the available information, you’d do far more than merely decimate the size of the electorate.
In the States, it’s not hard to find people who would vote for Sarah Palin to run the country because she’s a woman with a folksy charm about her. Plenty of people did vote for Obama without knowing as much about his policies as the fact that the guy gives a good speech. Over here, people vote for local candidates whose names they may not even know based on what they think of the party leaders’ personalities. A genuinely informed, thought-out, and prejudice-free reason for casting a vote is a difficult thing to find. Not unicorn-shit difficult, perhaps, but certainly not easy.
The question of how it’s decided who earns this privilege doesn’t seem realistically answerable, partly because I don’t know how we could reasonably agree on who gets the power to decide such a thing. How would it be arbitrated what particular questions – which presumably would have to be phrased in an entirely politically neutral manner – you’d have to be able to answer before being deemed sufficiently competent to take part in a supposedly democratic process?
I’m having trouble imagining a system in which I’m happy with letting someone take away my right to vote if I fail to meet their criteria in this regard.
I can’t think of a simple way of doing it that doesn’t cause more injustice than it solves. And I can’t think of a complicated way of doing it that doesn’t stomp all over everyone’s basic liberties. I’m not sure where I stand on the voting restrictions on prisoners. I’m not even sure I’m convinced that people with mental illness would be a greater detriment to the democratic process than the general public. I’ve met people detained under the Mental Health Act. Some of them had just as much idea what was going on as those people on the other side of the till. (Again, this works from either side.)
Almost any sweeping restriction that denies a voice to an entire subset of people will unfairly quash the rights of some, even while it tries to help by keeping certain dangers to democracy out of the process.
So I think we may just have to settle for a system that’s the worst apart from all the others.
Encouraging engagement and awareness in our political system is certainly a worthy cause, but enforcing it is bound to do more harm than good. I’m not saying there isn’t a great deal of room for improvement, but there are things far wronger with the status quo than the fact that people other than brilliant political analysts get to have a say in who runs the place.
Stupid people should have the right to vote too. And I say that as someone who has clothes draped on more than one piece of exercise equipment, and would need to print off a recipe to boil an egg.